David Gernant, Oregon, 1994
Born November 4, 1943
Circuit Judge, Multnomah County
Multnomah County, Oregon
1.2 million constituents
Appointed January 1993
Elected May 1994
Essay by David Gernant for Out and Elected in the USA
I was born a “war baby.” My arrival entitled Mom and Dad to immediate extra rations for sugar and butter. I think she began feeding them to me directly, because ever since I can remember I have regarded those as two of the major food groups – the others, I now know, are flour and chocolate.
Mom and Dad were both college graduates – unusual among my playmates. “Liberal” politically, they encouraged us in school. I cannot remember a time when my brother and sisters did not just assume we would go to college. I wound up with a law degree from Harvard, and they all got PhDs.
Law school in the late 60’s was still an almost exclusively male environment, and I have just recently found out that there were gay parties going on all around me. No one asked if I’d be interested, and I’m not sure what I would have said. In any event, with no media or social support for gay people, as always, I sublimated – that handy psychiatric term for this situation.
At 29, and without consciously acknowledging to myself that I was gay, I married a well-educated, intelligent woman who had more of the same books as I on her shelves than anyone I’d ever met. She was the mother of two enchanting boys, 12 and 10. Like a lot of gay people, (we are nurturers, aren’t we – i.e. many nurses and nail-cutters and all that?), I knew I wanted to be a father, but I was less sure what being a husband was all about. I was great at the first, as my kids and grandkids will attest, but failed spectacularly at the second.
Finally, at 32 and for the first time in my life, I met someone who told me he was gay. Actually he was already a close friend. And actually, he had just come out publicly to the parish where he was assistant rector. And he suddenly said, “What about you?” And I said, “What aBOUT me?” He helped me through the beginning of my coming out – a process that, as we all discover, never really ends. Soon I involved my wife in the process and we did some couples counseling. We stayed married until there seemed no point any longer and our sons were in college.
In the 1980s I decided that my next career objective was to become a trial judge. I believe that, especially in these times, when you offer yourself to the public for elective service you need to be comfortable with the idea that your private life will become public. So, with the help of the empathy and support of people at Portland’s PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), I reached a place of inner calm about it and declared my interest. With the election of Barbara Roberts to the office of Governor in 1990, the climate became especially welcoming. Her first judicial appointment went to Janice R. Wilson, an out lesbian. Less than two years later, I became the first openly gay male judge in Oregon. In the last seven years, Janice and I have been joined by, I believe, seven more – it is becoming hard to keep track – two sitting on the state’s Court of Appeals.
So far have we come that I am back in a kind of glass closet. I was having lunch recently with a local attorney and made some conversational allusion to being gay. She stopped and said that the subject had come up in her office – attorneys gossip about judges just like we do about them – and she said some people had “heard” I was gay while others assured them that, no, I wasn’t.
I feel lucky. I like going to work every day. Both of my sons are happy in their work and with their families. They love me, and their children are growing up with at least one insanely doting grandfather. I have not (yet) been lucky in love, but with my health I think I have another 40 good years ahead, so there is still time!